- “Rhetoric” and Poetic Drama
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[ 83 “Rhetoric” and Poetic Drama1 The death of Rostand was the disappearance of the poet whom,2† more than any other in France, we treated as the exponent of “rhetoric,” thinking of rhetoric as something recently out of fashion.3 And as we find ourselves looking back rather tenderly upon the author of Cyrano we wonder what this vice or quality is that is associated as plainly with Rostand’s merits as with his defects. His rhetoric, at least, suited him at times so well, and so much better than it suited a much greater poet, Baudelaire, who is at times as rhetorical as Rostand. And we begin to suspect that the word is merely a vague term of abuse for any style that is bad, that is so evidently bad or second rate4† that we do not recognize the necessity for greater precision in the phrases we apply to it. Our own Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry – in so nice a problem it is much safer to stick to one’s own language – is repeatedly called “rhetorical.” It had this and that notable quality, but, when we wish to admit that it had defects, it is rhetorical. It had serious defects, even gross faults, but we cannot be considered to have erased them from our language when we are so unclear in our perception of what they are. The fact is that both Elizabethan prose and Elizabethan poetry are written in a variety of styles with a variety of vices. Is the style of Lyly, is Euphuism, rhetorical? In contrast to the elder style of Ascham and Elyot which it assaults, it is a clear, flowing, orderly and relatively pure style, with a systematic if monotonous formula of antitheses and similes.5 Is the style of Nashe? A tumid, flatulent, vigorous style very different from Lyly’s. Or it is perhaps the strained and the mixed figures of speech in which Shakespeare indulged himself. Or it is perhaps the careful declamation of Jonson. The word simply cannot be used as synonymous with bad writing. The meanings which it has been obliged to shoulder have been mostly opprobrious; but if a precise meaning can be found for it this meaning may occasionally represent a virtue. It is one of those words which it is the business of criticism to dissect and reassemble. Let us avoid the assumption that rhetoric is a vice of manner, and endeavour to find a rhetoric of substance also, which is right because it issues from what it has to express. At the present time there is a manifest preference for the “conversational ” in poetry – the style of “direct speech,” opposed to the “oratorical” 1919 84 ] and the rhetorical; but if rhetoric is any convention of writing inappropriately applied, this conversational style can and does become a rhetoric – or what is supposed to be a conversational style, for it is often as remote from polite discourse as well could be. Much of the second and third rate in American vers libre is of this sort; and much of the second and third rate in English Wordsworthianism. There is in fact no conversational or other form which can be applied indiscriminately; if a writer wishes to give the effect of speech he must positively give the effect of himself talking in his own person or in one of his rôles; and if we are to express ourselves, our variety of thoughts and feelings, on a variety of subjects with inevitable rightness, we must adapt our manner to the moment with infinite variations . Examination of the development of Elizabethan drama shows this progress in adaptation, a development from monotony to variety, a progressive refinement in the perception of the variations of feeling, and a progressive elaboration of the means of expressing these variations. This drama is admitted to have grown away from the rhetorical expression, the bombast speeches, of Kyd and Marlowe to the subtle and dispersed utterance of Shakespeare and Webster. But this apparent abandonment or outgrowth of rhetoric is two things: it is partly an improvement in language and it is partly progressive variation in feeling. There is, of course, a long distance separating the furibund fluency of old Hieronimo and the broken words of Lear. There is also a difference between the famous Oh eyes no eyes, but fountains full of tears! Oh life no life, but lively form of death!6 and the superb “additions to Hieronimo.”7 * We think of Shakespeare perhaps as...